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Review: 'The Citizen'

Khaled and Diane comfort each other in "The Citizen."
courtesy of The Citizen
Khaled and Diane comfort each other in "The Citizen."

New Film Tells Unexpected Story

A Syrian immigrates to the U.S. on September 10, 2001 to find the American Dream...and gets much more than he bargained for. Guest blogger Rebecca Romani reviews "The Citizen" (opening Friday at the Digital Gym Cinema).

Ibrahim Jarrah is frankly unlucky. Born in Lebanon, he moves to another country to get away from the brutal Lebanese Civil War. Unable to find work, he gets a great job offer in Kuwait and moves there shortly before Saddam Hussein invades. And now having won the US Greencard Lottery, he arrives in New York on September 10, 2001, just in time for the day on which everything changes…forever.

What happens to him after that is chronicled in Syrian-born director Sam Kadi’s debut feature film, “The Citizen.” Based on true stories of what happened to Arab immigrants, Arab Americans, and others in the aftermath of 9/11, “The Citizen” tells a harrowing tale of being the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time, and how Ibrahim manages to make it through to fulfill his hopes of living in the American dream in peace.

Ibrahim (played by noted Egyptian actor Khaled Nabawy in his debut American role) is an oddly naïve, young Lebanese immigrant who has been lucky enough to win the yearly U.S. Greencard lottery and a highly coveted greencard that allows him to become a resident of the US. His encounter with immigration officials at JFK airport is a harbinger of things to come. (“Why did you leave Lebanon?” “Well, as you know, there was a civil war there…”)

His bad luck seems to dog him in his new country. Shocked by what he sees from his hotel window on the morning of 9/11, he wanders a traumatized New York that afternoon. When he returns, he is arrested by the FBI and interrogated and “disappeared” for six months. After his release, he experiences different forms of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim discrimination (“You want a job, you should change your name”). And the ultimate, he faces deportation on the eve of getting citizenship because he has the same name as one of the hijackers.

But these events also come with silver linings. The American woman Ibrahim befriends in the hotel, Diane (Agnes Buckner of "Murder by Numbers"), inexplicably keeps his suitcases for him after he disappears, the Indian store clerk he meets on 9/11 gives him a job and the Jewish man he saves from over-zealous Christian patriots has a friend who is an immigration lawyer who eventually represents Ibrahim at his deportation hearing and helps him get his citizenship.

For someone who has perhaps heard very little of what life was like post 9/11 for Arab-Americans, immigrants, and other minorities, "The Citizen" may come as a shock and an eye-opener. However, for those who know these stories, who know the people in these stories, the film is both oddly affirming and re-traumatizing at the same time because so many of the incidents are hung on the same character or those close him in such promiscuous rapidity.

While the film is serviceable, it falls victim to both clichés and the need to make its point. For example, when Ibrahim meets the Indian clerk, right on cue, someone smashes the door to the store out of anti-Muslim sentiment. Of course, the Christmas attack is on a Jew who doesn’t join in the hyper patriotic Christian behavior. And then there’s the clichéd and hackneyed binary of the attractive but not quite acceptable American girl versus the culturally acceptable (and expected) Muslim girl who wears the expected hijab whom Ibrahim meets in ESL class.

Very little is allowed to develop into a plot turn that gives you pause. It’s all telegraphed, and hits all the prerequisite points and stereotypes. It feels like there is hardly a scene in which something motivated by racism or fear or blind governmental ignorance does not happen to a pleasantly exotic but nice enough guy.

And yet, at the same time, the film doesn’t go far enough. For example, during Ibrahim’s first detention, nothing is said of those who were disappeared or summarily deported. Nor is much said about racially motivated attacks or media reporting that exacerbated the fear many minorities felt after 9/11. The film feels like a Hallmark Special that wants to assure its viewers that things were bad, then but now we’re still wonderful people and all’s well that ends well.

That may be, but the film ignores realities like the NSA spying on Muslims in New York and San Diego, the politically motivated detentions and the paranoia sanctioned by the Patriot Act, not to mention the continuing rhetoric by commentators such as Anne Coulter. Instead, Kadi soft peddles the story with an attractive and gentlemanly lead (Nabawy who deserves a much better role) and a typically American happy ending. It’s as if Kadi is afraid his audience can’t handle anything deeper than a movie of the week.

Nonetheless, "The Citizen" is a good introduction to what it has been like for many permanent residents and U.S. citizens of Middle Eastern decent. It’s a very good film to watch on the eve of the 12th anniversary of 9/11.

Then, watch a film that really tackles the issue- I would recommend "The Visitor" (2007) or "My Name is Khan" (2010), two films that unflinchingly address the issues of post 9/11 racism and detention.

"The Citizen" is currently screening at the Digital Gym at 2921 El Cajon Boulevard. It is scheduled to hit national screens in late September.